How to start again

When somebody dies, they take on a kind of mythical quality. Did they ever exist at all? Yes, you have your memories and, for a while until you can no longer bear to look at them, their possessions, but you don’t have them. They are lost to history, frozen as they were. Life goes on, for some. Your future is closed off to them.

When people say things will “get back to normal soon”, they are wrong. How can we get back to normal? It is not normality to have a void in your life that can never be filled, particles scrambling to do so but never quite managing it. It is not normality that waits for you, but reality. You have to fall in line because noses need wiping and bills need to be paid. But things don’t “carry on” as such, because the sequence is broken, not all the working parts are present. You cannot continue: you must start again. You must form your new normal, to help you cope, as your old normal now seems so far away from reality that it is practically extraterrestrial. You have been rebooted.

Gradually, you think of them a little less. You don’t forget, but your mind eventually starts pushing it toward a corner. Progress is slow, and grating – think of a huge boulder being pushed uphill on a hot day – but it happens. What I wouldn’t give to be able to think of absolutely anything else, you kept telling yourself. And then when you do – you might get a whole hour, perhaps, liberated from your misery – you immediately sink into guilt for losing focus. It’s like when those who fear flying believe only their own bitter concentration can keep the plane in the air – should they let their brain blink, down it all comes. And so, after your rare moment of freedom, you are ashamed. And down you come.

You drink, maybe. The relief can be temporary. The trouble with drinking to forget is you remember twice as hard in the morning. You eat badly, like it’s a punishment, reasoning that it doesn’t matter anymore, that nothing matters. But you know you are wrong.

You try to think what they would do in the most ridiculous situations, even the most petty of conundrums you’d never have dreamed bothering them with when they were here. Is it a comfort to wear something you know they would’ve liked, even if they’d never seen it? Does it make you feel strong to say yes to something you know they would have urged you to do? Or does it set you back further, bind you to them and their memory and the absence of them even more? Still working that one out. (She would’ve told me to stop being so ridiculous.)

You look for pieces of them everywhere, and find others seek them out in you. The children’s eyes take on the shape of their lost parent’s, or you hear them say something and imagine it in their voice. People ask you to share stories of what they were like, or want to know what really happened a particular time, or their true opinion of something. And you hesitate, partly because you don’t want to get lost in sentimentality and live in a permanent state of eulogy, but also because you don’t want to break that confidence. Although one of you is gone, you still share secrets and oaths – the conversations between you turn into promises and to break them now seems a betrayal. But you realise people want to hear about them, because they too are trying to make a connection, to make sense of it, to counteract the endless space and time that comes with being utterly, totally gone.

And so, you tell a cleaned-up version, one that reveals a little about them, but keeping the best parts for yourself. And in doing so, in letting the past become the present and making it about looking ahead and not back, you help the grief edge further into the recesses of your mind. It’s both cathartic and an acknowledgement that only unreliable narrators can tell their story now. You just have to make the best of it.

Talk. Feel. Be better to yourself. Eat your greens. Acknowledge that everything is new. You have slid down the biggest snake to the second-lowest square, yes, but ladders await; the dice must be rolled. Resent it if you must, and you will, but go with it.

Let the future happen to you, in all its bleakness and its brilliance. That is how you start again.



  1. Yes thank you for this – I agree with your distinction between ‘normality’ and ‘reality’ – the loss of my partner of 40 years means I must reset normal. I feel guilt and yet know that I must do it.

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